Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Polytheistic Religions in Pre-Roman Italy: Part III

South of Umbrians and Picenes, the Sabines, speaking Oscan and culturally close to Samnites, settled on Central Apennines. They were one of the most ancient populations in Italy and soon merged with Romans, to whom they handed down the pride they had in common with Samnites and the adherence to frugal customs and rural values we can find in archaic Roman writers, like Catone, who reports the presupposition that the Sabines’ name came from Sabo, son of Sancus, their main god, phonetic variant of Umbrian Saku, but this presupposition has no serious bases. Apart from Sancus-Saku, Umbrian religion and Sabine had much more in common: Sabines also worshipped the male parallel of Roman goddess Pomona, calling him Poimuni. Their goddesses Ardoina and Curi were identified respectively with Diana and Juno.

Vestini were very similar to Sabines. They settled in the Aterno valley and on Adriatic coast of current Abruzzo. They are known for the statue of the so-called Capestrano warrior; their name may come from the goddess Vesta, who became goddess of fireplace, home and preservation of life. Along the same river the Marrucini settled; they were an Osco-Umbrian population, too, and they might have been a branch of Marsi which moved north; both names may come from god Mars’.

We know very little about other Osco-Umbrian groups’ religion such as Aequi’s or Hernici’s, apart from what we can deduce from their belonging to this branch of Italic populations. We can deduce from Marsi’s name that they could practise a strong cult to the god Mars or that they might be born from a ver sacrum ceremony, as ancient sources say. Marsi settled at first in Sabine region, then moved to the region called Marsica from their name, under Umbrian pressure. Romans told that Marsi were snake-charmers or immune to their bite, so the snake should have had an important religious or totemic role among them, a role we can imagine linked to healing if we observe a christian rite which takes place in the same region nowadays, consisting in covering saint Dominic’s statue with snakes that are to be touched and taken by believers who want to heal or to preserve health. Marsi’s goddess Angizia held knowledge of medicinal herbs, of which they were experienced, and was a snake-charmer too.

The Paelignans settled in Samnio region, on Abruzzo’s Apennines, and made the Marsic league with Marsi, Marrucini, and Vestini; once they were believed to be of Illyric origins, but their language is Oscan. We don’t know much about their culture, because they romanized very quickly after the defeat they suffered during social war. The same happened with Frentani, inhabitants of basins of Fortore, Tiferno and Sangro rivers, on Adriatic coast of current Abruzzo and Molise. Their name may come from the word meaning “deer”, the sacred animal who led them during the ver sacrum from which they took origin.

The Volscians founded some cities which survived during Roman period: Antium, with a patron goddess who was interpreted as Fortune but had a larger “sphere of competence”: she was a goddess linked to fertility, birth, healing especially of reproductive organs, but also to navigation and agriculture; Anxur, where there were a temple dedicated to Iuppiter anxurus or Jupiter as a child, built in IV century a.e.v., over which Sulla made another temple to be built. Cassino is a Volscian city too, and there are traces of a cult to a deity of waters, later identified with Apollo.

Certainly Samnites are the most known among Osco-Umbrians, because of their pride and opposition to Roman conquest: these qualities are disclosed in books, where the role they had in Roman culture’s development is often forgotten. In facts, Atellans, farces of scurrilous humor, have a Samnite origin and were taken by Roman first attempt of literary production. For long Samnites were believed not to be a urban population: actually, while Samnites living on the mountains stayed reserved and conservative, those living in plains opened to influences coming from other populations, Grecians included, and rebuilt some cities: Pompeii, Etruscan city, was rebuilt by Samnites as the temple consecrated to fertility goddess of sulphurous waters, Mefitis, worshiped especially by Samnites, demonstrates; near the city of Capena, in southern Latium, there was a sacred area called in Latin lucus Feroniae, the wood sacred to the goddess Feronia, linked to springs and woods, whose cult was spread all over Central Italy: under Roman rule, this sacred area was widened.

As we have information about Umbrian religion from Gubbio’s tables, so we have information about Samnite religion from Agnone’s tables, regulating the practice of cult inside the sacred enclosure of Agnone, consecrated mainly to Ceres (Kerres, in their language) and subordinately to sixteen deities listed in these tables, often called “Kerriiais”, meaning “Cereal” and thereby “who makes grow”, referring to their function of inducing growth and coming from the name of the goddess Ceres, goddess of vegetation and harvest.

These deities are: Vezkei, in Latin Veiovis; Evklui Paterei, Father Euclo, called Hades or Hermes by Grecians, so he may have been a psychopomp god; Futrei Kerriai, Ceres’ daughter; Anter Statai, or Stata Mater for Latins; Ammai Kerriiai, Maia, Italic goddess of Spring, later identified with her Greek namesake, Hermes’ mother; Diumpais Kerriiais, Nymphs of springs; Liganakdikei Entrai, deity of vegetation and fruits; Anafriss Kerriiuis, Nymphs of rain; Maatuis Kerriiuis, dew’s goddess; Diuvei Verehasiui, or in Latin Jupiter Virgator, whipper, maybe someway bound to Lupercalia rites, during which some priests hit with leather straps the hands of women stretching out them to ensure fertility; Diuvei Regaturei, Jupiter Pluvius, who makes it raining; Hereklui Kerriiui, Hercules; Patanai Piistiai, goddess of wine making; Deivai Genetai, in Latin Mana Geneta; Pernai Kerriiai, Latins’ Pales, goddess of sheep farming; Fluusai, Flora, goddess of earth and patron of sprouds.

Samnites living near Agnone paid a tax for sacred enclosure’s maintenance and tables says that the enclosure belongs to those who paid this decima and have the right to attend it. There were fifteen altars inside this sacred garden; rites honoring Flora were performed outside it. Agnone’s sacred garden is an example of what Samnites’ first worshiping places looked like: they were open spaces, woods and valleys; only later Samnites began building sanctuaries, the most known of which is the sanctuary near Pietrabbondante, federal sanctuary of Samnite League. It had a big temple with three cellae and three altars dedicated to three deities, one of which was the goddess Victory, and a theatre. The architecture of this sanctuary shows consequences of the influence exerted by Grecians since VI century a.e.v. Mamerte, parallel to Latins’ Mars, was a very important god; his comrade-in-arms was the god Heres; like Sabines, Samnites worshipped Famel, goddess of earth. Lucina, goddess of birth, was a so important goddess that first Romans adopted her as an independent goddess and later her name became one of Juno’s appellations. Samnites had a sacred animal, like other Osco-Umbrian populations; theirs was the bull, while the cock was Samnite league’s sign.

Hirpini had the wolf as sacred animal and their name comes from the Samnite word for wolf, hirpus. They were an Oscan-speaking population, settled in southern Sannio, where Romans founded the colony of Beneventum. They, or their priests, were also called Hirpi Sorani (wolves of mount Soratte, from the place where this cult was celebrated); the historiographer Servius said that Hirpini practised the cult to Dis Pater, a Latin deity of underworld, with whom the original deity must have been identified, so some scholars believe that the adjective “Sorani” may come from Suri, an Etruscan underworld god. Hirpini also practised fire-walking, walking on coals with bare feet.

Lucanians’ sacred animal was the wolf, too, if we consider their name as given to them by Grecians, coming from the word meaning wolf, lukos; according to some philologists, their name is rather derived from the Latin word for “sacred wood”, lucus.

To their south, the Bruttii settled in current Calabria; ancient historiographers said they were shepherds or servants to Lucanians, but soon rebelled against them. They were a rough and nomadic population who conquered many cities of Magna Graecia before being defeated by Romans during the Punic Wars, when they were Hannibal’s allies. Archaeological findings demonstrate that they never founded real cities and their settlements consisted in an oppidum (fortification) and its connected villae. We don’t have traces of their culture.

The third Indo-European wave came from Illyria, preceding those of Grecians, Celts and Germans: various populations crossed the Adriatic and settled in current Apulia, between Abruzzo and Marches where overlapped to Osco-Umbrians population (Picenes) or in current Veneto. In Apulia, Illyrians were Daunii, Peucetii and Messapians; Liburni  settled in Picene region: we don’t know much about their religion because they merged with local Osco-Umbrians so that some historians believe Illyrian influences to be the result of relations at a distance and that Liburni never really settled in Italy; so Veneti were Illyrians too, and archaeologists prefer calling them Palaeoveneti, to avoid confusion with other populations reported under the same name, for example a Celtic group settled in Brittany, skillful navigators defeated by Cesar.

This confusion derives from uncertain origins of the name Veneti: it may come from the root ven- meaning “loved, friend”, and thereby Veneti means “members of groups united by blood ties”, or may come from a similar root meaning “to win” and so Veneti means “winners”; so Veneti is a generic name. The Veneti we are talking about may be, according to some sources, the Enetoi (Greek word for “praiseworthy”) mentioned in Iliad as a population coming from Paflagonia and by Herodotus as an Adriatic population, known to Grecians and then to Romans as skilful horse breeder. The so ancient use of this name doesn’t implies the existence of an original group later divided. The Palaeoveneti came from Illyria in XIII century a.e.v.; their language, attested by inscriptions, is an Indo-European language with similarities with Italic, Greek and Germanic branch, while their alphabet derives from the Etruscan alphabet of the city of Chiusi by adding the Greek letter O (in facts, this sound doesn’t exist in Etruscan language) and they have a syllabic script.

The Palaeovenetic culture is also called “atestina”, meaning “of the city of Este”, being this city their principal centre, near which there were four temples. The main one was dedicated to the goddess Reitia, connected to healing, as the ex-votos found around it show, but also to writing, as many alphabetic tablets and styli for writing have been found near the temple. Maybe the sanctuary contained also schools. The other temples were dedicated to the Dioscuri (Greek interpretatio of twin deities, common feature among Indo-European religions), to a warlike goddess whose name is not known, and the fourth may have been an auguraculum (a place where divination was practised). Most of Venetic temples are near waters; in Cadore region (Alps of current region Veneto) there was a temple consecrated to a triform goddess or to the god Trumusiate; near Abano’s thermal spring the cult of Hercules was practiced and there was a temple to the god Apono.

Iapyges was the collective noun for all the Illyrian population settled in current Apulia, who were believed to come from Crete according to some ancient sources: Sallentini, Calabrians, Messapians, Peucetii, Daunii. We don’t know much about Sallentini, Calabrians and Peucetii; we know something more about Daunii and Messapians.

Daunii settled in northern Apulia; they didn’t pass down much of their religion, but there remains some anthropomorphous stelae, bearing arms and hands drawn on them. Male stelae have an armor drawn on them, female ones a dress; some have a pin at the top, on which a head should be put. The of the entity drawn on the stele, which may be related to commemoration of dead people, was shown by other drawings: jewels, weapons, spheroid graphemes, colored scenes with people and animals. Scenes are different according to the stele’s sex: male stelae have fighting and hunting scenes, while female ones have a great variety of themes. On the latter representations of opium poppies were notices, so it is thought the Daunii used this flower not only for healing, but also for ecstatic and religious purposes.

Messapians settled in southern Apulia; they went to Italy during the Iron Age and stayed in touch with other Illyrian populations, both with those on the opposite coast of Adriatic and with those who came to Italy too, especially with Veneti. Some ancient historiographer, for example Herodotus, said Messapians were descendant of Cretans, who merged with local population. Messapian language is attested by many public, funerary, votive and numismatic inscriptions in Greek alphabet from Taranto and it is an Illyrian language. Their religion went under Grecians’ influence so that some Messapian deities have names which are very similar to those of Greek deities. In Torre dell’Orso’s and Roca’s inscriptions there are some names of typically Messapian deities: Tator or Taotor, one of the most important gods, or Batio, who was worshipped in brambles (and so his name, from the Messapian word for bramble) and represented sometimes as a god and sometimes as a goddess breast-feeding her child. Later, Batio was identified with Jupiter and worshiped as Jupiter Batio, but the cult of the goddess of growth survived in post-messapian period. Ana was another goddess, later identified with Aphrodite, as in a dedication on a capital to Aphrodite Ana.

 This is the general picture of Italian situation. Of course, it’s only an overview, just to give an idea of complexity and tissue of populations in the territory of what we call Italy nowadays. Even though I introduced them as distinct populations, actually they overlapped everywhere until they definitively merged under Roman rule.

The Federazione Pagana doesn’t have a predominant ethnic-religious orientation (except in “numeric” sense of word, I mean for what concerns the majority of members) and so its purpose is to support development of paganism in Italy and thereby of these paganisms and others and to let every single person search for his/her historic and emotional roots.

Manuela Simeoni

[2] It’s what happens with those who start studying “stregheria”, but they believe they can’t practice it or they won’t find a master because they don’t have Italian ancestors.

[3] Ante Era Vulgare: before current era, it means b.c.

[4] From now on, I will use mainly Latin names of population where I couldn’t find the English word for them. Latin names are in italic.


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